A Certain People: American Jews and Their Lives Today
by Charles E. Silberman
Summit, 458 pp., $19.95
For at least a century, Jews in America have worried about three main issues: their success in establishing themselves in American society; their continuity as a community; and their legitimacy, that is, their justification to themselves of the value of being Jews. Their concerns about worldly success were always connected with the fear of anti-Semitism. Hatred of Jews did not have economic effects until the mass immigration of the 1880s. The German Jews who arrived before then had often been subjected to social discrimination, but this didn’t prevent them from doing well in business. Roughly half of the German Jewish immigrants settled in the rapidly expanding cities of the West and South, where their skills as middlemen were welcome.
The situation was quite different for the approximately two million Eastern European Jews who arrived between 1880 and 1914. Their children had great difficulty entering the professions and getting good jobs in many established businesses. These barriers began to break down during and after the Second World War, and by now the economic exclusion of Jews has become rare. It is, therefore, possible to imagine that the clock will now stop, that this success will not undergo any further change, and that the large and seemingly untroubled status of Jews in the American economy can thus be celebrated as the end of a process, an unprecedented achievement in the history of the Jewish diaspora.
The question of the continuity of the Jewish community has been equally troubling, at least to the majority that has continued to prefer being Jewish. Here, too, fear predominated for several generations. Among the intellectuals in the immigrant generation some of the most influential were antireligious universalists of one kind or another. In the next generation, socialism of several kinds, and not Judaism in any form, was the faith of many Jewish writers and political activists. Almost without exception, those who were seriously concerned about the survival of Judaism in America wrote and spoke, during the first half of the twentieth century, as if they were fighting a rear-guard action against inevitable attrition. They were not cheered by the attention that the immigrant generation and its children were paying to bar mitzvah celebrations and Jewish cooking. This was widely regarded as vulgar folk-Jewishness, which might last a while or even for a long time, but could not be regarded as a substitute for the knowledge of sacred texts and adherence to Jewish practices. Even in the heyday of the Catskill resorts, those who enjoyed vacationing at Grossinger’s knew that such a place was neither the heir of the European synagogue nor a substitute for it.
Now, in the third and fourth generations of the descendants of East European immigrants, the popular Jewish culture seems to continue. Far fewer Jews today observe the High Holy Days than their parents did, but many pay dues to synagogues, turn up for the Passover Seder, light candles for Hanukkah, and are overwhelmingly pro-Israel, willing to give and raise money …